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Populist Party (N.C.). State Executive Committee
The Proposed Suffrage Amendment. The Platform and Resolutions of the People's Party
[S.l.]: [The Party?], [190-?].

Summary

The Populist Party of the United States arose when the traditional dual party system failed to address the concerns of struggling workers, particularly agricultural workers, in the early 1890s; it is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the Populists considered themselves the party of the "common people" ("Populist"). According to United States History (online), the Populist Party was officially formed at an 1892 convention held in Omaha, Nebraska. The Party, which was "backed by nearly religious fervor," recruited "more than one million popular votes" in 1892 ("Populist Party"). In 1896, part of the Party split between the "fusionists" (who wanted to merge with the Democratic Party) and the "mid-roaders," (who wished to remain a true third party) ("1896--The Populist Party"). The fusionists temporarily gained control and the Populists merged with the Democrats in 1896. That merger, however, was short lived. A poor showing outside the farm belt and the subsequent return of Republican power created a larger rift in the Party between those "who wished to remain with the Democrats and those who wanted to reclaim their identity" ("Populist Party"). Subsequent poor showings in the elections of 1900, 1904, and 1908 led to the demise of the party.

The document summarized herein was generated by the Executive Committee of the North Carolina Populist Party in 1899 as both an attack on a Democrat-backed Suffrage Amendment to the North Carolina State Constitution (which passed in 1900) and a reiteration of the Populist Party's platform. The text contains the full text of the Democrat-backed Suffrage Amendment.

The copy of the Amendment opens the document. The Amendment offered suffrage to "every male person born in the United States" and "every male person who has been naturalized" who was at least "twenty-one years of age" and who met the additional qualifications specified (p. 3). Voters had to "have resided in the State of North Carolina for two years, in the county six months, and in the precinct, ward, or other election district in which he offers to vote four months next preceding the election" (p. 3). Those convicted of crimes were ineligible to vote, and all voters had to be legally registered.

The Amendment required that "every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language; and, before he shall be entitled to vote, he shall have paid . .  .his poll tax" (p. 4). Poll taxes were "a lien on the assessed property" held by the voter (p. 4). The literacy clause in particular was intended to keep African Americans—who had been prohibited from learning to read during slavery and who still had poor access to education at the turn of the century—away from the polls. Indeed, the Amendment declared that "No male person, who was on January 1, 1867, or at any time prior thereto, entitled to vote under the laws of any State in the United States, wherein he then resided, and no lineal descendant of any such person; shall be denied the right to register and vote at any election in this State by reason of his failure to possess the educational qualifications prescribed" (p. 4). Since the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed the right of all men to vote, regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude," was not passed until 1869, the literacy clause kept many black men from voting but preserved the right to vote for white men, even if they were illiterate ("U.S. Constitution: Fifteenth Amendment"). Such clauses, which allowed those whose ancestors had been voters to be voters themselves, became known as grandfather clauses and were prevalent after the Civil War throughout the South.

The "People's Party Platform," which was adopted "unanimously in Convention, April 18, 1900," follows the amendment (p. 6). The platform condemns the "Democratic Legislature of 1899 for its extravagant expenditures of public money" and its "careless blundering and careless legislation" (p. 6). It focuses much of its criticism on the Democrat-backed Amendment, and its literacy clause in particular. The Populists foresaw the eventual striking of all grandfather clauses in the U.S. due to their unconstitutionality. (The U.S. Supreme Court would overturn all grandfather clauses in 1915 for violating the Fifteenth Amendment.) Assuming that the largely Democratic General Assembly, composed "of some of the best lawyers of the party," would have known of the unconstitutional premise of the clause and thus known of "the great danger of that unconstitutional section falling, leaving the remainder of the amendment to stand," the Populists thus accuse the Democrats of "disfranchising by an educational qualification fifty or sixty thousand white voters of North Carolina, who in 1898 gave the Democratic party power in the Legislature and whose ignorance is no fault of their own" (p. 7). Because many whites in North Carolina could not read, they too would be potentially prohibited from voting without the grandfather clause. The Populists are especially angered by the Democrats putting forth any Amendment which "dignifies with the right of suffrage the most vicious, troublesome and obnoxious class of the negro population" while leaving "the unfortunate sons of the white men who have been the strength of true democracy" without a vote (pp. 7, 8).

The Populist Party makes no qualms about its belief in white supremacy in this 1899 document: "The People's Party is and has always been more distinctly than any other party in North Carolina a white man's party" (p. 9). As such, the Party wishes to amend the state Constitution to disqualify all "Negroes and all persons of negro descent to the third generation inclusive" from holding public office (p. 9). Additionally, they promise to support the "maintenance of the system of local self-government in all the white counties, towns and cities in the State" while also maintaining a "legislative system of county government for all the negro counties of the State, so that there can never be any question that the white people shall always have full and complete control of every county in the State" (p. 9).

The remainder of the lengthy document includes pledges to "increase the efficiency of the public school system in North Carolina," to support labor as the basis for the creation of all capital, and to support the "unfortunate [but presumably white] class in North Carolina" (p. 10). The document instructs members to vote for the Presidential nomination of William J. Bryan and includes myriad provisions, amendments, and denouncements regarding all aspects of the party's platform (pp. 15, 11).

Works Consulted: "1896—The Populist Party," 1896, 9 October 2010; "Populist," Merriam-Webster.com, 1 September 2010; "Populist Party," United States History, 29 August 2010; "The Suffrage Amendment," Learn NC, 5 September 2010; "U.S. Constitution: Fifteenth Amendment," FindLaw for Legal Professionals, 5 September 2010.

Meredith Malburne-Wade

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